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Duluth City Council approves police gear spending, despite protests

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Protest at Duluth City Council meeting
Protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks and bandannas shout and chant throughout the Duluth City Council meeting Monday night, vowing to shut it down.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The Duluth City Council passed a controversial resolution Monday night, approving the purchase of nearly $84,000 in "personal protective equipment" for the city's Police Department. 

The meeting was nearly shut down by demonstrations, leaving even supporters of the purchase request unhappy. 

About a half-hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, protesters in dark hoods and masks stood in a line in the council chambers, chanting, "No Line 3! No riot gear for the DPD." 

The council was planning to decide whether to take up a discussion over the Duluth Police Department's request to buy "personal protective equipment" — the protesters called it "riot gear" — like helmets with visors, and elbow and chest pads. The issue had been in front of the City Council earlier this year, but was tabled to get more community input. 

The issue has been a contentious one, packing the council's third-floor chambers in City Hall with largely opponents, but also supporters of the proposal. 

The masked protesters were there to tie their opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project that is winding its way through the Minnesota regulatory system to the police-gear purchase. 

Pipeline opponents have long criticized police for what they say were violent tactics at the Standing Rock pipeline protests in North Dakota two years ago. Since the Line 3 project was approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission over the summer, protesters have been gearing up to stop construction along the pipeline route, and local law enforcement agencies have been preparing to try to stop them. 

But the pipeline group wasn't alone in its opposition to the funding request: Others in the room objected to what they see as the growing militarization of police, or were concerned about use of force, and policing in communities of color. 

The Duluth Citizen Review Board, which advises the City Council and the Police Department, held three meetings earlier this month to solicit community input on the proposal. Some had come to the meeting hoping the City Council would keep the issue tabled until the board could issue a report. 

And there were supporters, too: At the Citizen Review Board's earlier meetings, some argued that the equipment — like shielded helmets and chest protectors — is necessary, to keep police safe.

Many had come to the meeting with prepared statements, and were eager to address the council.

But the masked protesters' chanting overwhelmed the session. After only about 10 minutes, the council recessed for about a half-hour. Council President Noah Hobbs tried to quiet the crowd, so the council could listen to public comments. But the protesters responded with music from a portable speaker — and more noise. 

Instead, he called for a vote: "All those in favor of Resolution 674, please signify by raising your hand."

The funding request passed on a 6-2 vote — and the meeting immediately adjourned to yelling, tears and chants from protesters. 

"I'm a little upset," Jordon Moses, vice president of the citizen review board, said afterward. "A lot of community members have been working on this issue for not even just the last few months, but years."

Moses was among the meeting's attendees who had prepared comments about policing and use of force.

"I think it's important to shut stuff down," he said. "But, we need to understand the system and how it works."

It was tough to see the City Council hold the vote without the public's input, he said. 

"I can't necessarily fault the council for doing so," he said. "They were kind of in a hostile environment. But at the same time, I don't think a vote like this of this magnitude should ever happen without public comment." 

City Council Member Arik Forsman, who voted in the affirmative, said he's also upset people didn't have a chance to speak in favor of — or against — the purchase. It's a loss for democracy, he said.

Forsman says he supported the purchase to protect police officers. He was also thinking about morale. 

"I was concerned that if we didn't move forward and show folks that we do support our police officers, that we were going to earn a reputation in this city as one that doesn't support them," he said.

Forsman's colleague, Joel Sipress, one of two council members who voted against the resolution, says he would have liked to have seen a longer, more inclusive community process. 

"I have concerns and reservations about the purchase, and regardless, this would have been a difficult vote for me, but because we don't have a policy [in place] regarding the use of the equipment," he said, "I could not in good conscience vote for this tonight." 

Now that the City Council has approved the purchase, Sipress said, it's important for the city to put in place a policy to make sure there are safeguards and accountability for the use of the equipment. 

"There's a consensus in this community that we need a policy now that this purchase is going to be made," he said.